Check out these locations in Washington and Oregon for some great blacktail deer hunting.
We’re hunting maddening deer, black-eyed creatures often as invisible as swamp ghosts, that sneak like rabbits, climb stumps and walk logs, hide in plain sight, disappear like melting snowflakes, sniff scent off a falling leaf, and rarely come out into the open if there’s a lumen of shooting light in the Northwest sky.
Blacktail deer are the blessing and the curse of Washington and Oregon deer hunters. The blessing is that seasons are generous, deer plentiful, any antlered buck legal in most areas and licenses are sold over the counter.
The curse is that blacktails thrive in brush that would tangle up Sasquatch, are secretive, would rather freeze and hide than bolt, are mostly nocturnal, and hunting is best when the weather between the Cascades and Pacific Ocean is the worst.
Blacktail bucks, even during the November rut, rarely venture into the open during daylight.
And if they do it will be when the sky is the color of a wet wool sock, squalls are drowning the hills, two track-roads are slick with mud, visibility is monotone gray, and rifle scopes are blotted with rain smears.
When it comes to blacktails, it is where and how they live, not antler size, that ranks them as coveted prizes.
Both states are reporting stable to slightly growing numbers of blacktails in the tangles of lowland brush and overgrown logging shows on the wet west side of the states.
Some of the best herd growth and development of trophy-racked bucks is occurring in urban sprawl regions, where subdivisions are encroaching into resident blacktail range and deer are protected by restrictions banning hunting or firearms.
Semi-rural areas with restrictions on firearms, and mushrooming deer numbers can be top prospects for bow and shotgun hunters with access to private land.
Some of the biggest bucks in both states are now being found in and around residential areas fattening up on rose gardens, safe from natural predators.
The trend toward timber companies banning public access from logging lands, except for permitted hunters a few weeks each fall, is also being credited with reducing harvests of spikes and 2-points which is allowing bucks to grow to maturity and develop trophy size antlers.
Timber company hunting permits run $50 to $500, may be sold in limited quantities in some places, and wrap up some of the best blacktail areas in both states.
Blacktails are brush deer that thrive on habitat with re-prod growth that develops for several years after timber is clear-cut.
Both fish and wildlife agencies allow long seasons that coincide with the November rut and issue over-the-counter buck tags to anyone with a big game license qualified to deer hunt.
Blacktail hunting starts in mid-October, but it is November before the hunt hits its stride and the odds of putting brown on the ground tilt ever so slightly toward favoring hunters.
By November, pounding fall rains and hopefully snow storms have moved the last deer down from higher elevations into lowlands stripped of leaves, pounded down the notorious brush and ferns, improved visibility in the woods, revealed trails, tracks and sign, and kicked off the rut that provokes wary nocturnal bucks into cautiously reckless daylight appearances.
Even with those advantages success in most units averages only 20 to 35 percent, although it goes much higher in remote areas of southwest Oregon, distant from population centers.
By far, the best public blacktail hunting in Oregon is in the southwest game management units where hunter success is often over 30 percent.
In the Sixes Unit, more than half of the blacktail bucks taken are 3- or 4- points. In the nearby Rogue Unit almost 30 percent of the bucks dropped are 4-points — one of the highest percentages in the state. The Rogue also produces more blacktails than any other unit in western Oregon — almost 1,300 at last count, but it also attracts almost twice as much hunting pressure as most other units.
According to ODFW harvest counts the best chance for a November hunter to drop a blacktail will be to still-hunt in the southern and central coastal areas.
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The odds are not good in Oregon’s northern coastal hunting units including the Tillamook Bay, Saddle Mountain-Scappoose region where hunting pressure can be high and harvests low.
Another area to steer away from is the Santiam Unit where the number of hunters is over 7,300 — highest in the state — and the 15 percent success rate is the lowest in the state.
According to ODFW, the three best units to look for a blacktail buck are Sixes, Chetco, and Melrose, where a third of the hunters put brown on the ground and hunting pressure is among the lowest in western Oregon.
In both Oregon and Washington the most November blacktails will be found in lowland river valleys, outside of canopied mountainous areas.
Habitat is what controls blacktail density, according to big game managers in both states, and the 20- to 30-year-old overgrown logging areas in the mountains are no longer good deer habitat.
Logging on national forest lands is a fraction of what it was in the 1970s and 80s, and that’s resulted in a lot less deer habitat in the high country, according to biologists.
Experienced blacktail hunters watch for lowland areas that have been scorched by wildfires or clear-cut logged within the last 5 to 10 years. While the landscape is recovering, these openings fill with brush and browse — perfect blacktail cover and year-round food.
Once you locate an area stitched with large tracks, marbled with droppings and raked with antler rubs you’ve found a place to hunt. The deer won’t leave, barring disaster. Unlike flighty whitetails or far-ranging mule deer, blacktails are stay-at-homes.
Multiple radio tracking programs have proven that blacktails rarely venture more than a mile or two from good home habitat.
For example, a comprehensive Washington Fish and Wildlife GPS tracking program in Capitol Forest (GMU 663) near Olympia confirmed that the average year-round home range for a blacktail is 86 acres and never more than 243 acres.
Scouting to locate these pockets of deer, especially in areas with lower hunter success (which often simply means fewer hunters) is almost always more critical to individual success than hunting in units with high kills — and hunting pressure.
For the past several years, deer numbers in hunting units on the east side of Washington’s Puget Sound have slipped and some areas no longer re-open for the November buck hunt. An exception is Unit 407 east of I-5 and south of the British Columbia border.
Good access and high buck numbers and a kill rate nearly twice as high as in neighboring units makes GMU 407 possibly the best prospect on the east side of Puget Sound.
As late-season blacktail hunting has skidded for a variety of reasons in WDFW’s Region 4, promising November hunting units have developed in south and southwest units in Regions 5 and 6.
Some of the highest Washington blacktail buck harvests often occur in Ryderwood Unit 530, Lincoln 501 Winston 520 and Mossyrock 505. Another consistently productive deer areas is Skookumchuck 667, which produces a high percentage of bucks that include rare 4- and 5-point trophies.
Other dominant west-side river drainages with solid blacktail numbers include the lower Lewis, Washougal, and Wind rivers.
However, the upper Lewis, Wind and Siouxon units are suffering a downturn, blamed largely on cutbacks in clear-cut logging that have re-canopied forest areas and reduced the amount of edge habitat, which blacktails need.
The majority of west-side forest land along the southern I-5 corridor is dominated by the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and state land managed by the Department of Natural Resources. Both are open to public access but a lot of the public ownership is in mountainous areas where deer numbers are low.
Deer populations are generally stable in lower elevation units in the Vancouver area like Washougal 568 and Battle Ground 564. The Battleground Unit is one of the few late hunt units where hunters are allowed to take any deer. Most of the blacktail land is private property, however, and there is a unit-wide restriction against rifles.
Archery, muzzleloaders, handguns and shotguns are allowed. Find a landowner fed up with blacktails in the haystack or cropping the rose garden and you can whack the first deer that comes into your sights.
Deer harvest and success is almost always consistent in the Vancouver region, with a total annual kill of approximately 2,500 bucks and hunter success in the 15-20 percent range.
Trophy hunters looking for unusually high wide blacktail antlers target the Klickitat and Grayback units in the open steppe and oak country above the east end of the Columbia River Gorge.
These bucks tend to have high wide antlers that indicate cross-breeding with mule deer that overlap into some of the area. The farther east you hunt in these units the bigger the mule deer influence.
On the downside, the number of deer in the Klickitat and Grayback units has dropped considerably in the past several years taking success down as well. Recovery has been slow.
Some of the best chances to drop pure blacktails with big basket-style racks occur in the foothills of the Brooklyn area south of Montesano and east of Grays Harbor. Most of this rolling alder, conifer forested land, however, is timber-company-owned and requires access permits. But there are huge blacktail bucks here and an unusual number of 4-points.
Hunters without permits stand a good chance of scoring during the rut by hunting along the edge of the timber company land. Big bucks tend to follow alder bottoms and brushy ridge lines beyond the posted logging areas on their hunt for does.
A hot southwest blacktail prospect is the Long Beach Peninsula north of Ilwaco. This is Unit 684, and it boasts a 34 percent hunter success rate. The downside is that almost all of the peninsula is private and requires permission.
Deer numbers are declining on the upper Olympic Peninsula, especially west from the Hoko River to the ocean.
Peninsula hunting will be best east of the Hoko River. Unit 621 is wedged between the east side of Olympic National Park and saltwater in Hood Canal, and according to local game managers it’s one of the best blacktail areas on the Peninsula.
This year they expect to see good numbers of blacktails at mid to lower elevations, in a mix of DNR and private forests lands.
If you decide to hunt this promising unit, bring your hiking boots and packboard. A lot of the roads leading into DNR tracts and timber company lands are gated year-round which reduces hunting pressure and improves the odds for hunters willing to hike or mountain bike beyond the gates.
Finding blacktails in the thick brush and steep foothills on the west side of both Oregon and Washington has always been tough.
Finding accessible blacktails in these prime areas got harder when most of the major timber growers closed free public access, and imposed sometimes steep trespass fees that has limited entry.
That shift to pay-hunting has pushed a lot of non-paying hunters into the remaining free access lands, which is changing historic hunting pressure and harvest impacts.
Fewer hunters equals higher buck survival and more older heavy-antlered blacktails in both states.
The shifts are just another chapter in the blessing and curse of November blacktail hunting.